I’ll Keep You Close

Jes­ka Ver­ste­gen, Bill Nagelk­erke (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – December 22, 2021

Jes­ka Ver­ste­gen is a descen­dant of Dutch-Jew­ish pub­lish­er Emmanuel Queri­do, mur­dered by the Nazis in 1943. Her new work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, which exam­ines the pain of repressed trau­ma, is close­ly based on her family’s expe­ri­ence. Grow­ing up in the Nether­lands with a moth­er who sur­vived the Ger­man occu­pa­tion but lost many rel­a­tives, eleven-year-old Jes­ka feels caught in a web of incon­sis­tent events. Her moth­er becomes angry eas­i­ly. Her beloved grand­moth­er, Bom­ma, is phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly declin­ing but evi­dent­ly needs to reveal hid­den parts of her past. Seem­ing­ly nor­mal dai­ly events are tinged with sad­ness. Verstegen’s hon­esty, and the lyri­cal beau­ty of this trans­la­tion from the Dutch by Bill Nagelk­erke, ele­vate her uni­ver­sal sto­ry about children’s need for dia­logue with those who care for them.

As por­trayed in the nov­el, post­war Dutch life is marked by rel­a­tive silence about their nation’s role dur­ing the Holo­caust. When Jeska’s teacher begins to teach about this era, the fact that there are Jew­ish stu­dents in their school is ignored. When her own par­ents and those of a class­mate exempt their chil­dren from lis­ten­ing to a book about the war, pas­sive accep­tance takes the place of ques­tion­ing this deci­sion. Chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties, and even a girl who fears with­out rea­son that she is ill, are clear­ly avoid­ed. Jes­ka is sen­si­tive and aware of her envi­ron­ment, but she is unable to put togeth­er the pieces of the puz­zling silences in her home and her com­mu­ni­ty. Often, she resorts to metaphor, pic­tur­ing her school as a kind of mon­ster with a bel­ly full of chil­dren,” and rep­re­sent­ing her par­ents’ dis­turb­ing silence as a mag­net,” draw­ing her to find out the truth.

Read­ers may be famil­iar with the his­to­ry of Jews in the Nether­lands through the life of Anne Frank, whose diary plays a role in the nov­el when Jeska’s friend secret­ly shares a copy with her. There were both col­lab­o­ra­tors and pro­tec­tors among the Dutch, but the real­i­ty of both has been qui­et­ly con­cealed. When Jes­ka tries to learn more in her local library, the librar­i­an dis­cour­ages her pur­suit. Bom­ma is her only pos­si­ble link to the past. As the elder­ly woman pages through a fam­i­ly album, Jes­ka is com­pelled to find out the cause of her grandmother’s grief and guilt as she remem­bers rel­a­tives who did not sur­vive. Jeska’s deter­mi­na­tion is under­stat­ed but pow­er­ful, as she grad­u­al­ly real­izes that no one will sup­port her as she pur­sues the truth.

There are no easy res­o­lu­tions in the nov­el and no dra­mat­ic scene of con­fronta­tion. Jeska’s love for her grand­moth­er is a source of strength. The kind­ness of friends and extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers also relieve her soli­tude. Yet her mother’s inabil­i­ty to come to terms with the past, pas­sive­ly rein­forced by Jeska’s father, leaves a gap in Jeska’s life. Her pro­found strength is both sad and inspir­ing. Real­iz­ing that the past leaves scars, but that remem­ber­ing the past is like a thread in a piece of knit­ting,” keeps Jes­ka close to her grand­moth­er and to those fam­i­ly mem­bers who per­ished. The qui­et impact of this unusu­al book will make a last­ing impression.

An after­word explain­ing the story’s sources is included.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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